Franco-American Treaties

In the wake of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga, which suggested that the rebelling colonies had a substantial chance of victory in the Revolutionary War, France recognized the United States and allied with the emerging nation against Great Britain.

Summary of Event

The American revolutionaries did not believe that their war of independence would go unnoticed by the outside world. With the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the balance of power in Europe had swung decisively toward Great Britain, largely because of its defeats of France and Spain in battles fought in the Western Hemisphere. Americans and Europeans both knew that the scales would remain tipped in favor of the island kingdom only so long as it retained its New World possessions. At first, colonial writers warned that the Bourbon monarchies might attempt to seize several of George III’s American provinces while his house was divided against itself: This fear represented the most compelling reason for the colonies and the mother country to patch up their quarrel. As the imperial crisis deepened, however, American opinion of the Catholic European states gradually shifted from fear to the hope that they would assist the colonies in case of war with Great Britain. [kw]Franco-American Treaties (Feb. 6, 1778)
[kw]Treaties, Franco-American (Feb. 6, 1778)
[kw]American Treaties, Franco- (Feb. 6, 1778)
Treaties;France and United States
Franco-American Treaties (1778)[Franco American Treaties]
[g]United States;Feb. 6, 1778: Franco-American Treaties[2340]
[g]France;Feb. 6, 1778: Franco-American Treaties[2340]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Feb. 6, 1778: Franco-American Treaties[2340]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 6, 1778: Franco-American Treaties[2340]
Vergennes, Charles Gravier de
Franklin, Benjamin
Franklin, Benjamin;Franco-American Treaties
[p]Paine, Thomas
Deane, Silas
Louis XVI
Floridablanca, count de
La Luzerne, Chevalier de

That change of sentiment was one of the radical features of the American Revolution. Bred on a hatred of Catholic Church Catholicism and the political absolutism associated especially with France, American publicists for decades had called for the permanent removal of the French peril from North America. The elimination of France from Canada in 1763, however, meant that France no longer represented the threat that it had previously. France and its ally, Spain, were now more tolerable from afar than in the day when the fleur-de-lis loomed over the back door of the mainland settlements. Moreover, France’s nearly total elimination from mainland North America did not mean that the striving colonies were destined to lose a potentially valuable international trading partner. A thriving market for import-export trade had grown between Atlantic seaboard ports and the Spanish and French colonial possessions in the Caribbean. The American colonists’ desire to keep this trade free from British control was as much a factor in their feelings toward France as was their interest in political independence.

The need for foreign assistance, so ably expressed in Paine, Thomas Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (Paine)
Common Sense (1776), was a powerful catalyst for independence. Anticipating the final break, the Continental Congress in March, 1776, dispatched Silas Deane to Paris American Revolution (1775-1783);French support to purchase military stores and to explore the possibilities of a commercial alliance. Even before Deane’s arrival, French leaders decided to provide the patriots with covert aid. The British-American war gave France a long-awaited opportunity to gain revenge for its humiliation in 1763. However, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, French minister of foreign affairs, was cautious and prudent, a tough-minded career diplomat, and no messenger of Enlightenment idealism. Fearful of American defeat or a compromise settlement between the colonies and Great Britain, Vergennes plotted a judicious course until the likely outcome of the war became more clear.

The attitude of Spain, which feared an independent America as a threat to its overseas dominions, also served to restrain Vergennes and his countrymen. Nevertheless, the year 1777 marked France’s increasing commitment to the American patriots Patriots;American Revolution : The growing stream of supplies bought with royal funds or taken surreptitiously from military arsenals, the opening of French ports to rebel privateers and warships, the procession of French officers bound for Washington’s army, the unremitting pressures of Silas Deane, and the subtler blandishments of his colleague, Benjamin Franklin, all combined to move France toward the patriots’ orbit.

Benjamin Franklin, American ambassador to France, at the court of King Louis XVI.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

News of the British capitulation of General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in October, 1777, dispelled any lingering doubts as to the patriots’ ability to continue the struggle. Vergennes now feared that the American victory might give rise to a spirit of conciliation in Great Britain, leading to some form of reunion between the English-speaking people on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The minister notified Franklin and his fellow commissioners that the government of Louis XVI was ready to establish formal ties with the United States.

Prior to and after final agreement on the treaties that were signed on February 6, 1778, Vergennes had French agents in America contact (and contract) willing propagandists to support a Franco-American alliance. The best-known of these agents, until American leaders’ political differences led to his alienation, was Thomas Paine. Another supporter of the French, this one in Massachusetts, was the Reverend Cooper, Samuel Samuel Cooper, whose brother was active in the politics of independence both before and after 1776. Cooper not only wrote articles calling for closer Franco-American relations but also gathered key information from the American emissary in Paris, Benjamin Franklin. His activities actually earned for him a salary from the French foreign ministry.

Shortly after the French and Americans signed the 1778 treaties, Cooper and a number of other Francophiles opened a literary and social salon in Boston, to which French officers, including the famous Lafayette, marquis de Marquis de Lafayette, were invited. Although Cooper was among a small number of American patriots who corresponded regularly with French officials (including Foreign Minister Vergennes and France’s chief minister in America, the chevalier de La Luzerne), Lafayette did not know of their semiofficial propagandistic functions. Lafayette even wrote to Vergennes in May, 1780, urging Paris to “especially put Dr. Cooper at the head of the list of our friends.” Cooper’s service to the cause of closer Franco-American relations continued until he died in 1784. Another patriot propagandist who maintained close ties with La Luzerne was Brackenridge, Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a Philadelphia Presbyterian minister and attorney who in 1779 edited United States Magazine. Although the magazine did not print specific articles backing the French treaties, it was assumed that French pay for other propagandistic pieces helped finance Brackenridge’s publication.

For both parties, the Franco-American Alliance was the child of necessity. If the patriots in the beginning hoped for massive French aid and the entrance of the Bourbon nation into the war, they wanted only a temporary relationship; too intimate a formal connection would mean becoming involved in the future strife of the Old World, whose peoples mirrored a society and way of life incompatible with free, republican institutions. While the patriots offered only a commercial treaty to France, Vergennes successfully demanded more, a “conditional and defensive alliance.”

The French minister of foreign affairs and his sovereign, King Louis XVI, were not enthusiastic about revolution against kings. Their willingness to recognize the United States of America and to sign treaties with the infant nation was based upon a desire to humiliate France’s ancient foe. Officially titled the Amity and Commerce, Treaty of (1778) Treaty of Amity and Commerce, the document signed on February 6, 1778, contained most of the proposals made by Congress for liberalization of trade according to principles foreign to mercantilism.

The Alliance, Treaty of (1778) Treaty of Alliance, signed the same day, stipulated that, in case of war between Great Britain and France—which the two treaties made inevitable—neither America nor France would make peace without the approval of the other. France renounced forever any claims to British territory on the continent of North America and agreed to recognize the United States’ right to any such territory seized by patriot armies. The two nations also guaranteed each other’s territorial boundaries in the New World as they would be drawn at the end of hostilities.


Once news of the Franco-American Treaties spread, an inevitable division of opinion over their presumed positive or negative significance surfaced among American clerics. Although not all Anglican and Methodist ministers denounced the treaties, their denominational closeness to England caused schisms among parishioners. Many loyalists among the clergy had already left their pulpits as early as 1775 and 1776. The dissenting clergy that took over such ministerial posts tried to combine support for independence with some form of justification for the expediency of a formal alliance between the secularist Continental Congress and monarchical, Catholic France.

Among non-Anglicans, some pastors, such as the Reverend Cooper (already committed, for pay, to the French cause), defended the treaties openly. Others, including James Dana of Wallingford, Connecticut, recognized the need for international political alliances to help the struggling former colonies defeat Great Britain but insisted that more extensive ties with “popery” would run counter to American principles of free government. A striking example of denunciation of the alliance as mere camouflage to hide presumed French Catholic propagandistic intentions came from Zulby, John John Zulby, a Swiss-born cleric and anti-independence member of the Continental Congress. Zulby was ultimately banished for referring to American patriots as preferring “Independancy and papist Connections” over “the Gospel and . . . former acknowledged happy Connections” with Great Britain.

Great Britain’s international difficulties continued to mount after hostilities opened with France in the summer of 1778. The next year, Spanish-American relations[Spanish American relations] Spain entered the fray after Prime Minister Count de Floridablanca secured a promise from Vergennes to continue hostilities until Gibraltar was regained. Although Spain did not join the Franco-American Alliance, the United States, through its tie with France, found itself committed to fight until Gibraltar fell to Spain. In 1780, British-Dutch commercial friction brought the Netherlands into the war. Great Britain was also confronted by the League of Armed Neutrality, League of Armed Neutrality organized by several nonbelligerent nations in protest against British practices of search and seizure on the high seas. Unlike the circumstances of earlier wars of the eighteenth century, Great Britain was isolated both diplomatically and militarily. Its defeat was therefore all but inevitable.

Further Reading

  • Corwin, Edward S. French Policy and the American Alliance of 1778. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1916. A revisionist and realistic look at the motives of France in supporting the American Revolution, concluding that the alliance reflected a desire to reverse the effects of France’s defeat in 1763 and reestablish its position as an international power.
  • Gottschalk, Louis. Lafayette Comes to America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935. This first installment of Gottschalk’s multivolume biography tears away much of the myth surrounding Lafayette and reveals attitudes of the French Court toward America.
  • Kennedy, Roger G. Orders from France: The Americans and the French in a Revolutionary World, 1780-1820. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. An excellent study of repercussions—social, economic, and cultural (particularly in art and architectural styles)—that followed the political and military aid links between France and the United States during the American Revolution. Concentrates on major biographies.
  • Liss, Peggy K. Atlantic Empires: The Network of Trade and Revolution, 1713-1826. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Ties North and South America to eighteenth century European commerce. The chapter on the Thirteen Colonies shows a number of economic links between the North American colonists and French colonies in the Caribbean just before and during establishment of the Franco-American Alliance.
  • Morris, Richard B. The American Revolution Reconsidered. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Explores misconceptions about the diplomatic history of the American Revolution.
  • Morton, Brian N., and Donald C. Spinelli. Beaumarchais and the American Revolution. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2003. Comprehensive biography of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, with information about his experiences as an arms dealer to the American revolutionaries and his dealings with Louis XVI, Benjamin Franklin, and the Continental Congress.
  • Schiff, Stacy. A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. New York: Henry Holt, 2005. Examines the seven years Benjamin Franklin spent in Paris, including his negotiations with Vergennes to secure the Franco-American Treaties in 1778. Schiff depicts Franklin as an improvisational diplomat who created foreign policy as he went along.
  • Stinchcombe, William C. The American Revolution and the French Alliance. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1969. A comprehensive examination of the process that led to the Franco-American Alliance, beginning with the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War and the Peace of Paris in 1763. Valuable, extensive bibliography.
  • Varg, Paul A. Foreign Policies of the Founding Fathers. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1963. A provocative book that deals with the relationship between commerce and foreign policy, a factor that many historians believe operated in the Franco-American Alliance.

Seven Years’ War

Siege of Louisbourg

Peace of Paris

Lord Dunmore’s War

First Continental Congress

American Revolutionary War

Second Continental Congress

France Supports the American Revolution

Declaration of Independence

Siege of Gibraltar

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

XYZ Affair

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Franco-American Treaties (1778)[Franco American Treaties]